As job interviews go, Transportation Secretary nominee Elaine Chao has the skids well-greased for her ascension to the post: she’s got a great resume, knows almost all the people on the hiring committee, and is related to one of the senior managers – who just happened to introduce her as she appeared before a Senate committee Wednesday.
“I regret that I have just one wife to give for my country,” quipped Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, himself quoting another GOP Senate leader, Bob Dole, when Dole introduced his wife Elizabeth as a cabinet nominee.
To be excruciatingly accurate, McConnell is on his second wife (as was Dole, when he introduced his wife as labor secretary nominee during the George H. W. Bush administration). But no introduction, high-level or not, was really necessary for Chao, who was greeted by warm welcomes, compliments about her service and her family, and talk about future plans from members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
While nominees for president-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet faced grueling questioning and open opposition from civil rights groups in testy hearings in other parts of the Capitol complex, Chao cruised as she chatted amiably with lawmakers about transportation issues. Not a single member questioned her qualifications, ethics or ideology – staple topics of more contentious hearings.
Senators talked about her “grace and excellence” as labor secretary under President George W. Bush and as deputy secretary of transportation under President George H.W. Bush. They mentioned how much their wives loved her. One talked about being “excited about working with you going forward.” And those were the Democrats talking.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., dipped out of a tough two days of hearings for Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions to pop over to the Transportation hearing to let Chao know how much he appreciated her government service and was looking forward to working with her. And Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. – who took the extraordinary step of testifying against his colleague, Alabama Sen. Sessions – thanked Chao for being willing to serve in the Cabinet “not once, but twice.”
By the time the hearing was over, Chao had been invited to visit two states – that of Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. – and finally accepted Florida Sen. Bill Nelson’s facetious request that she travel to the home states of every member of the committee.
Meanwhile, Chao fielded questions about one of the few truly bipartisan concerns on Capitol Hill – transportation safety, efficiency and innovation – and generally deflected with responses saying she was looking ahead to working with Congress on those matters, once confirmed.
She declined to give an opinion on one partisan matter on the Hill, whether to privatize federal air traffic controllers, as House Republicans wont to do. Opponents (including, noted Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the Department of Defense) worry about safety standards and reliability. Proponents argue that the private sector can adopt new technology faster than the public sector, improving performance. “I’d like to get confirmed first,” Chao said, deflecting the question and drawing some chuckles. “Obviously, this is an issue of great importance,” she said, adding that the incoming administration would likely weigh in on it once Trump is sworn in Jan. 20.
Chao also talked about the importance of infrastructure repair and building – welcome news to senators who are constantly looking for federal cash to make improvements in their home states. She did, however, emphasize the role of the private sector in handling infrastructure overhaul, which may signal a looming fight on the Hill.
Trump has said he wants a $1 trillion infrastructure program, pleasing Democrats who have been seeking such a program for years, but have run up against opposition from Republicans worried about federal spending. Infrastructure is the leading – arguably the sole – issue Democrats are eager to work with Trump on, but Democrats have also said they will not accept package that amounts to tax subsidies for private firms to do the work (and presumably impose user fees).
Neither issue is expected to hold up a speedy and overwhelming vote for Chao – especially with her husband scheduling the floor vote. “I’ll be working to lock in the Senate Majority Leader’s vote over dinner,” Chao quipped.